It was Timothy Braswell's 13th birthday, and the candles on his pistachio-flavored ice cream cake had already burned halfway down to the white and green frosting. With a noisemaker in one hand and a silver-and-red party hat on her head, Timothy's mom, Gloria, was growing more and more annoyed as her husband, Robert, looked on quietly.
"Come on, Timmy, blow out the candles before they melt the cake," she admonishes the dark-haired lad, who is suddenly full of himself now that he's entered his teen years.
"Why don't you get Granny to blow them out?" cracks Tim, gesturing toward the elderly lady seated to his right at the dining room table -- Robert's mother, Esther. She, too, is wearing a party hat, though it's cocked a tad to the side, making the casual observer think she may be suffering from some sort of paralysis.
"You know that Granny Esther can't do that," Gloria admonishes. "If you don't blow out the candles, then there'll be no presents for you, young man."
"Whatever!" spits Tim, ripping off his birthday hat and throwing it to the carpet. "This birthday sucks! I'm too old for this. I'm not a baby anymore. I want to go hang out with my friends."
Tim shoves past his mother and grandmother, and in the process, knocks Esther Dunlop, age 76, to the floor. Esther lies there unmoving; Tim's sister, Megan, picks up her grandmother and sets her back in the chair, straightening her hair and closing her mouth, which had popped open in the fall. The ease with which the skinny 14-year-old has righted the older lady is almost startling, given Esther's seemingly sturdy frame.
No one says anything about the cake or the candles, which have since burned themselves out and are sending up wisps of smoke, like incense at a Mass for the dead. The imagery is appropriate. What is not readily apparent from this scene is that Mrs. Dunlop expired in June because of a massive cerebral hemorrhage; she died instantly as she lay on the couch in the Braswells' home, where she had lived for several years, watching a rerun of her favorite show: CSI: Miami. What now sits before Timothy Braswell's melting ice cream cake -- blue hair and all -- is her lifelike, taxidermied corpse.
By all accounts, Dunlop had been a gentle, loving woman who relished looking after her grandchildren when not playing canasta with her friends or knitting colorful potholders for her daughter-in-law. She had moved in with her son's family just before Thanksgiving, 1998, after the untimely death of her second husband, Lawrence Dunlop, who had been shot to death after coming home from golf and surprising burglars in their home. The family was worried that she would be too lonely and depressed after the tragic deaths of two husbands. Robert's dad, William Braswell, had died after he was struck by lightning while hiking in the Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson, during an August 2 monsoon in 1967.
It almost goes without saying that Ahwatukee residents Gloria and Robert were devastated by the loss of the family matriarch. The thought of cremating or burying such a vital part of their clan seemed unbearable, and they feared further traumatizing their children, whom Esther had baby-sat since their births. Even before she moved in, Esther had lived in a Maryvale neighborhood that, over the years, had become low-income. For years, Robert had begged his mother to leave, but she had become almost as attached to some of the little Latino children on her street as she was to her own grandchildren. But after what happened to Lawrence, she decided it was time to go.
Just after her death last April 11, Dunlop's body was being held in cold storage at Scottsdale's Casper Mortuary Inc., when Gloria and Robert, after much soul-searching, decided that they wanted to take what for some might seem like drastic action. They came to the realization that they just couldn't let Granny Esther go.
At first, they discussed their grief, and their longing to keep Esther among the living, with their minister at Calvary Episcopalian Church. They then discussed the situation with the head mortician at Casper, who, in turn, discussed it with colleagues. Finally, about two weeks after Esther had died, a man knocked on the door of the Braswell residence when only Gloria was home. She doesn't usually let strangers in when Robert isn't there, but this man looked so kindly (he reminded her of her own late father) that she made an exception. George Canetti quickly told her that he had heard through the mortuary grapevine that she and her husband were looking for an alternative to death for Esther. He mentioned that a representative from ALCOR Corporation (the Scottsdale firm that freezes whole bodies and even heads for future reawakenings when medical science is more advanced) had first called his superiors, saying that the Braswell family was looking for something that ALCOR wasn't equipped to provide. Apparently, Casper mortician Ronald Gates had sought advice from ALCOR scientists.
As the two shared coffee and oatmeal cookies, Canetti gently pulled out a pamphlet from his inside breast pocket. It was from Preserve A Life, a company that had recently relocated from East Vancouver, British Columbia, to central Phoenix. He talked about a revolutionary new process known as "humidermy," in which Preserve A Life scientists essentially taxidermy human remains along the lines of a hunter's bounty -- like the deer or elk you might see at a lodge or the tiger in a diorama at a natural history museum.
In the case of Mrs. Dunlop, he advised, she could be "mounted" in a seated position, so her family could enjoy her presence at family functions, or just watch Jay Leno with her. He also quietly advised that, even though it didn't seem possible as the family was grieving, there would be times when it would be inappropriate to have grandmother in plain view. During those times, her countenance could be stored in the hallway closet, since her legs could easily be adjusted to a standing position.
Indeed, Gloria says all these months later: "When we have friends over, friends who don't know about what we've done with Mother Dunlop, we put her out of sight for the evening. I know some people will think this is really weird, but it's been so comforting having her here with us. I think, if she could talk, she'd be pleased. Sometimes, it's almost like she never passed away."
Gloria admits that having a dead body in the house isn't for everybody, and it's not without small problems, outside the realm of what unknowing visitors might or might not think of the family's actions. Though Preserve A Life has by all accounts done a marvelous job of treating Mrs. Dunlop's skin, stretching it over a fiberglass model made to fit her proportions exactly, and inserting glass eyes, with the option of leaving the eyelids open or closed, there are occasional rips and tears that have to be daubed with a special putty from the Preserve A Life Home Repair Kit. Additionally, a lingering, musty smell sometimes hovers about Mrs. Dunlop, an odor technicians at Preserve A Life say has nothing to do with death, but is a natural product of the skin of seniors, referred to by some as "that old person smell." Gloria often leaves potpourri near Mrs. Dunlop's body, or simply uses Glade air freshener.
"The kids loved having Mother about," says Robert Braswell, an electrical engineer at Philips Semiconductors in Tempe. "I mean, it was great having her back after the funeral home had kept her for a couple of weeks, and then Preserve A Life took her for a month or so to work its magic. We didn't have to go into all the morbid details with the kids, since we knew she was coming back home. We at first just said, 'Granny's had a stroke, and she's gone to the hospital. She'll be a little slower and quieter than she was before.' Then, we decided we had to tell them the whole truth, but we could add that she would still be in the room with us in almost every way once she was back from the, uh, clinic. That it wouldn't be too much to believe that she was inside her very own skin as a lifelike spirit, even though she had technically passed on."
And it's a good thing that the Braswells came clean with the children for a couple of reasons. The kids, both honors students, would have figured things out once a less-animated Granny arrived back in their Ahwatukee home, and with a humidermied body in the house, accidents are bound to happen.
For instance, in early September, while Robert was out of town and Gloria was having the carpets cleaned, she leaned Mrs. Dunlop against the house in the backyard for the better part of a week, placing her under a tarpaulin.
"I was rushing around because school had just started and everyone was going in a different direction," she says. "You know how it is. Then I was all like, 'Where did I put Mother Dunlop? Oh, right, out back!' I probably shouldn't have sent Timmy back there to get her. But he was 12 and strapping for his age, and since all of Mother Dunlop's insides were removed during the Preserve A Life process, she's very light. I didn't think anything of it."
Unfortunately, there was nothing to prepare Tim for what awaited him under that covering. Seems Gloria had forgotten about the fact that the family's backyard is turned into a lake during irrigation, and the skin from one of Granny's feet had rotted away from the moisture. The other foot -- in fact, half the leg -- was gone. And just as Tim began to yell, Gloria saw the family's dog, Sparky, dragging something across the back lawn. It was Mrs. Dunlop's chewed-off appendage.
Gloria quickly dialed Preserve A Life's emergency number, and its technicians retrieved the body that evening. It was back in the Braswell home before Robert got back from Los Angeles 48 hours later. Though Gloria decided it was best to tell her husband what had happened to his mother, she could have gotten away with silence. He would never have been the wiser. Esther Dunlop was as good as new.
Though to some it may sound like the stuff of nightmares, a scene out of The Silence of the Lambs or a page from the bio of serial killer Ed Gein, execs at Preserve A Life (www.preserve-a-life.com) assert that what they offer is just the "next big thing" in mortuary science. They say that theirs is the best of "post-life alternatives" to the old-fashioned funeral and traditional burial.
Even before the company came about, more and more people were choosing cremation, online memorials and "personalized" services planned by the dearly departed in the manner of weddings and bar mitzvahs. But Preserve A Life hasn't abandoned tradition; some of what it offers has roots in the burial techniques of the ancient Egyptians, but with a modern twist and without any of the troublesome religious dictates.
Indeed, since the 10-year-old Canadian corporation quietly transplanted itself to the Valley's sunnier climes last spring, setting up shop in an abandoned medical facility just south of Van Buren Street, 30 deceased have been humidermied at the facility using one of two methods: traditional taxidermy, wherein a human body is shorn of its skin and hair, the skeleton and internal organs disposed of (either through burial, cremation or tissue donation), and the remainder mounted over a mannequin made to order; or freeze-dried with the internal organs intact, the corpse drained of all fluid and consequently only a fraction of its original weight.
These human "replicants," as the 57 employees of Preserve A Life refer to them, are then hand-delivered to next of kin, and installed according to the family's wishes. Children have been posed on bicycles and skateboards, grandmothers in rocking chairs, and grandfathers playing boccie ball. One woman wanted her husband posed on his favorite Harley wearing a Hells Angels motorcycle jacket, while in the case of a lesbian couple, the surviving woman wanted her longtime companion dressed in a Frederick's of Hollywood French maid outfit, cut so as to reveal her buttocks and bosom. And in one of the most disturbing trends, some casualties of the Iraq war have even been mounted in full dress uniform, and posed saluting or waving the American flag.
"We'll do almost anything to accommodate a client," claims Bryce Cunningham, 52, CEO and co-founder of the company. "We have had husbands ask for their wives to be enhanced using saline implants, and we can do this, using the latest plastic surgery methods."
At nearly 6 feet tall with a muscular build and a military bearing borne of his stint in Canada's super-secret, elite Army commando unit JTF2 (Joint Task Force II), Cunningham is a perpetual motion machine of a man, both super-salesman and hardheaded businessman. After he took a bullet for the Maple Leaf in the mid-'90s during a daring raid on a white supremacist outpost in northern Ontario, wherein three of his comrades lost their lives, Cunningham retired from the service. He was planning to devote himself exclusively to running the family's tailoring business, which his father had left him, when he made the acquaintance of the mysterious, enigmatic Dr. Geoffrey Crittenden at a local numismatics society conference. A former chief pathologist with Canadian Science Council, Crittenden's hobby was taxidermy, and he had radical ideas about how to mesh medical science with modern taxidermy. By his own admission, Cunningham soon fell under the spell of the visionary doctor, and a partnership was born.
The pair set up shop in East Vancouver with only a handful of employees, garnering customers mainly by word of mouth. Cunningham took care of the business and legal side (though he had never formally practiced, he had gotten his juris doctorate from the University of British Columbia College of Law before entering the military), while Crittenden focused on actual "post-life preservations," as Cunningham calls them. In time, Crittenden, now 56, went on to perfect the taxidermy process now known as humidermy, wherein human skin is essentially pickled in a top-secret formula of various chemical compounds. According to Cunningham, the result is soft and amazingly lifelike skin that can be maintained indefinitely with a minimum amount of maintenance by adoring families.
"It's like Colonel Sanders' blend of 11 herbs and spices, except that no one's being eaten," says Cunningham, smiling but half-serious. "Of course, the 'recipe,' if you will, is proprietary. But we have reason to believe that human epidermal cells treated with this process will last indefinitely. We give a lifetime warranty, and if it were legally possible to give more than a lifetime warranty, we would."
Cunningham struts with pride as he shows off Preserve A Life's state-of-the art, 62,000-square-foot facility. It's divided into four parts. The first deals with pre-taxidermied treatment of the body, and there are a number of steel bathtubs in which deceased persons are submerged into a yellowish, translucent goop. The entire room is refrigerated, so there's minimal decomposition, and the bodies look like so many children's dolls encased in lemon Jell-O. After about a week of this, the corpses are placed on a conveyor belt where they're transported either to a freeze-drying chamber or to the skinning and tanning workroom -- where it's taxidermy the old-fashioned way.
"I wish they were all freeze-dried, to tell you the truth," confesses Cunningham, as he shows off a huge cylindrical tube that can hold up to six bodies at a time. "This freeze-dryer completely eliminates the need for us to dispose of the skeleton or the viscera, as is necessary with our traditional humidermy process. There, the next of kin can choose to have everything but the skin returned to them for burial or cremation. Or they could donate it to science, and we'll ship it out to a university for them.
"Freeze-drying eliminates all that. First, we freeze the body as hard as a block of ice; then this baby [the freeze-dryer] sucks out 86.8 percent of the body's frozen moisture, leaving an almost completely desiccated replicant that's only a fraction of the original weight. If you think about it, the human body is mostly water, so a 250-pound man will weigh less than 50 pounds after an eight-month treatment. That's the rub. It takes too long, and people want immediate gratification. Regular humidermy only takes about four or five weeks, by comparison."
But there are drawbacks to both procedures. With freeze-drying, it's difficult to do realistic enhancements afterward, like breast or penile enlargement, because the implants cannot survive the freeze-drying process. Also, with freeze-drying, if the individual in question is obese, there may be some leakage of fat once the replication process is complete. And finally, because the skin is not "tanned" the old-fashioned way, vermin have been known to lay eggs in the dried flesh. "For some pests, like moths or cockroaches, a freeze-dried corpse is like a big hunk of beef jerky," admits Cunningham.
With humidermy, the process is more laborious and expensive. One average humidermied male can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000, mainly because of the amount of time skilled craftsmen have to spend re-creating the individual. Freeze-drying takes longer, but machines do most of the hard work, with only a technician or two to oversee the process. So a child, infant or small dog can be freeze-dried for as little as $6,000, and an adult for $10,000. But you get what you pay for, Cunningham says. With humidermy, if you so choose, all the benefits of plastic surgery are possible to make your loved one look better than he or she did when alive.
For those who can't afford to have the entire body preserved, Preserve A Life offers a plethora of less expensive options. For $1,750 (discounts are sometimes available), you can have just the individual's head mounted on a plaque, and for $750, the limb of your choice. (One lady actually had her husband's right arm taxidermied, with the hand holding a removable ashtray.) A swatch of your loved one's skin can be treated and affixed to a pillowcase or a blanket, so that you can always have him or her next to you -- which Cunningham considers a bargain at $250. And ears, toes and fingers are dead cheap, from $50 to $100 to preserve. Cunningham says the most popular use of these "leftovers" is as key-chain fobs, which, he asserts, "make great conversation pieces."
Always the cheerleader for his and Crittenden's enterprise, Cunningham says, "We say Preserve A Life -- whose acronym is PAL -- because we preserve your PAL for life. Because now, death never means having to say goodbye. For years, people here in the States have been taxidermying and freeze-drying their pets. Finally, they can enjoy the same results with their lost human loved ones."
In a survey of all of Preserve A Life's clientele, garnered from a list provided by the East Vancouver and Maricopa County health departments and from the company itself, New Times discovered only one family that was unhappy with its decision to preserve a loved one for personal use.
That family resides in Ottawa, Ontario, where its patriarch once owned a popular French restaurant. The restaurateur's children had thought a humidermied version of their dead papa might soothe customers accustomed to seeing his smiling face greeting them as they entered to dine. Indeed, when he wasn't up front, Henri Clemenceau would go from table to table taking care of his regulars, pouring wine refills himself and telling what the wait staff lovingly referred to as his "joke du soir."
But when the family installed the humidermied Henri at the front of the eatery in his familiar pose, hand out as if ready to shake, customers weren't as pleased as the Clemenceaus had thought they would be. In fact, business seemed to dwindle with the return of Henri from Preserve A Life's then-laboratory in East Vancouver, and the Clemenceau children wanted to return the replicant of their father to the company for a complete refund.
Cunningham recalls that Preserve A Life didn't have a money-back guarantee at that time (it has since instituted one). Although the Clemenceaus sued, Preserve A Life's barristers prevailed, since Canadian national law prohibits anyone unrelated to a dead person from owning his or her remains. Even though the firm won, Cunningham and his colleagues decided it would be good for business to give the Clemenceaus their money back, but the family had to keep Henri under Canadian law.
"From what I hear, he's in a public storage vault somewhere in the Ottawa suburbs," Cunningham says. "They didn't even bother to bury or cremate him. It's a shame, because he was one of our finest early representations. If we could have kept him legally, we would have him greeting people here in the lobby of our new company headquarters in Phoenix."
The rest of the firm's customers contacted by New Times expressed positive sentiments similar to those of the Braswells.
Take Margaret Singer, a Mesa woman who works as a nurse practitioner at the Mayo Clinic in north Scottsdale. Her 7-year-old, Marvin, had been a lively, rambunctious little boy who, in defiance of his babysitter, one day licked his finger and stuck it into a live electrical outlet. The teenage sitter knocked Marvin clear of the current with a wooden chair before major damage was done to the boy's features by the electrical charge, but not in time to save his life. Singer, a single mother whose husband was killed when he was washed overboard during a deep-sea fishing trip off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, was beside herself with grief. When the funeral director suggested Preserve A Life, she thought it was a sick joke.
"At first, I was revolted, horrified!" says the attractive, 30-something redhead. "But the more I considered it, the more it appealed to me. My husband's remains were lost at sea, and all I have left of him was the fishing pole he was using when he went overboard. Then, when Marvin was electrocuted, I was afraid I'd grow old in a house full of photos of the two of them. This way, Marvin's always with me, and through him, his dad."
At Singer's home, Marvin's bedroom is just as it was when he died, filled with model airplanes, toys, plastic dinosaurs, crayons and coloring books. A pennant of his favorite team, the New York Yankees (the family hails from Long Island), is on the wall over his chest of drawers. In his little bed, Marvin lies as if asleep, draped in velvet, with flowers all around him. Singer brings out photos of one of her favorite mountings of her little boy (she paid extra to Preserve A Life so Marvin's body can be contorted to fit into several poses). One snapshot shows Marvin on a scooter, another has him wearing his Little League uniform with a big grin on his face as he's supposedly fielding a ground ball.
"As you can see from the pennant, that boy was a huge Yankees fan!" Singer muses, her eyes welling up. "He would have been so happy to see A-Rod come to the Yankees. I'm just grateful he didn't live to see that man slap that ball out of the Boston pitcher's hand the other night in the ALCS. It would have killed him to see a New York Yankee cheat to try to win a game."
She stops for a minute, looking particularly sad all of a sudden. Margaret says she keeps Marvin safe in his bed most of the time now for his own protection. "Initially, I wanted him on his scooter, in jeans and a tee shirt, as if he were playing, or in his baseball uniform. It reminded me of how it was before the tragedy. But our pet dachshund, Kipper, kept jumping up on him. I was afraid he'd become damaged. And when the neighborhood kids would see him in the uniform, they would naturally want to play ball with him. On one occasion, one of his teeth was broken when they hit him in the face with a pitch. Now I just keep him in his bed as my darling little Marvin."
Renee Carson of Mesa didn't have enough money to have the whole body of her son, Marine Lance Corporal Jefferson Carson, done.
She opted for a head-mounting, and a military burial for the remainder of the corpse paid for by the Corps. Renee confirms that Preserve A Life waived its $1,700 fee for the war hero. It was a good thing, too, that she chose the limited procedure, since Jeff Carson's body was mutilated when he stepped on a land mine while attempting to take an Iraqi child and a fellow Marine to safety during the first few days of the invasion. The mine blew him apart as he was holding the little girl in one arm and dragging his buddy with the other. The child was saved, but he and his buddy weren't so lucky. Both were awarded the Purple Heart posthumously, and Carson received the Medal of Honor. Wearing his camouflage hat and a stern expression, Jeff Carson's head is displayed on a living room wall next to his framed medals, a signed letter from President George W. Bush, and photos of the 20-year-old in and out of uniform.
"This is good enough for me, if I can't have him alive," says the proud mother. "Not only did Jeffy get the 21-gun salute, but he's here, next to his medals. I see him all the time. Sometimes, it seems like he's going to come right out of that wall and say, 'Mom, I love you!'"
For Leonard Scholl of Gilbert, verisimilitude was also a big part of having his new bride, Cynthia Scholl, humidermied. They'd only been married three days when Cynthia was impaled by a cast-iron pipe that had jostled loose from an 18-wheeler in front of them as they were making their way up the Pacific Coast Highway along the California coast. Driven by an intense desire to be with his beloved, Scholl gave Preserve A Life a call after seeing one of their ads, and they fulfilled Scholl's request to have the brown-eyed lass installed in his bedroom, wearing only her negligee.
"It's either this or suicide," says Scholl, glancing over at the provocative frame of his love, then removing a sheet to demonstrate what he considers Preserve A Life's superior job on his Cynthia.
"Our favorite time was Friday night. After work and dinner out, we would get comfortable, lie in bed and drink a glass or two of good Merlot before, well, you know. I still cherish that night of the week with her, and when I wake up the next morning, she's there beside me. As long as I can hold her hand in mine, I'll be happy."
As Bryce Cunningham likes to maintain, the possibilities are limited only by a family member's imagination, the prime factor in Preserve A Life's decision that it will go public next year.
"The funeral industry in this country is a guaranteed cash cow of $10 billion a year," he notes. "If Preserve A Life captures only part of that market over the next decade, we're going to make our investors very, very happy. Our closest competitor is ALCOR, but they're offering only the possibility that maybe one day you'll be brought out of the deep freeze. 'Give us your money today, and take us on faith,' they're saying. But here at Preserve A Life, you get a quality product that your loved ones can utilize here and now. There are no gimmicks or IOUs."
While Cunningham professes to want nothing to do with ALCOR, a well-placed source tells New Times that this claim may be all talk. The source says that the two firms are working on a deal in which Preserve A Life would offer humidermy, where only the skin is utilized, and the rest of the body could then be frozen over at ALCOR.
"What they're telling people is that a skinned body could just as easily be fixed in the future as anything else," the source says. "Jeez, ALCOR's convinced people that they can get their heads chopped off and that medical science might one day be able to clone a new body! Wouldn't it be easier for advanced medical science to clone a new coat of skin? If the two companies were to join forces, it would offer the deceased and their families a chance to have their cake and eat it, too."
The source continues, "What you have to realize is that what these two companies offer is not mutually exclusive."
Comparisons to ALCOR, the Scottsdale cryogenics lab best known for turning late Red Sox slugger Ted Williams' head into a much-fought-over human Popsicle, is on the mark for a number of reasons.
City fathers struggled tirelessly to have ALCOR come to Scottsdale, and similarly Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and Governor Janet Napolitano teamed up to bring home the Preserve A Life bacon to Arizona's capital city.
When PAL execs were hunting for a new home in the southwestern United States, having decided that Canada's regulations were too strict and its taxes too high, Gordon and Napolitano took Cunningham and Crittenden on a whirlwind three-day tour of the Valley, wining and dining them, and tempting them with a package of tax breaks and incentives that ultimately proved too tantalizing to turn down. For Gordon, it meant another in a string of initiatives to revitalize the downtown area, of which PAL headquarters is on the eastern edge. For Napolitano, it was all about bringing more business and jobs to the state.
"Mark my words," exclaims the mayor, "what seems controversial now will be conventional in the near future! Preserve A Life offers a terrific service to our citizens, and when the history of downtown revitalization is written, their move to Phoenix will be seen as a key factor in the ultimate success of our plans. With the ASU extension and light-rail attracting more residents and commerce to the central city, it won't be long before the PAL complex is surrounded by an expanded downtown."
Though Governor Napolitano was away meeting once again with Mormon leaders in Utah -- this time for a conference titled "Bigamy Today: Bad Rap or Poor PR?" -- her press office issued the following statement to New Times:
"The Governor believes Preserve A Life will be a boon to the state's economy, and is glad to do anything to further ease their transition to the welcoming climate of the Valley of the Sun."
The statement didn't mention that Napolitano has already done a great deal to help Preserve A Life's business. During last year's legislative session, an amendment to a budget bill in the state Senate, introduced by Senator Ken Cheuvront, created a loophole so that Preserve A Life need not register with the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. Executive Director Rudy Thomas was miffed, telling a subordinate, "First ALCOR, now this!" But as Thomas serves at the discretion of the governor, his anger was quickly mollified with a phone call from Napolitano, a source at the state capital reveals. Napolitano, Gordon and Cheuvront believe Preserve A Life will ultimately mean a $500 million jolt to the local economy.
PAL's reclusive genius, Crittenden, never gives interviews, but Cunningham is plainly tickled that the pols are falling over themselves to please PAL. "I've offered all three of them our services free of charge when they expire," says Cunningham. "The gift will be legal. After all, they'll be dead. And in all three cases, it'll be a piece of cake. Especially with Mayor Phil Gordon, who's looked especially corpse-like ever since he endorsed Andrew Thomas for Maricopa County Attorney."
Cunningham smiles after the latter statement; as a Canadian, he has found local politics in his company's new home amusing in a macabre sort of way.
Preserve A Life could one day do Madame Tussaud's wax museum one better by having political leaders, artists, pop stars and other celebrities enshrined as humidermied replicants. Imagine the children of the future walking down a series of dioramas where the bodies of John Kerry and President Bush reenact their debate at ASU's Gammage Auditorium (this could be an exhibit that tours the nation re-creating all three debates; as previously stated, replicants can be made to adjust with ease). Why, perhaps even Osama bin Laden, the evil mastermind of 9/11, will appear as he has in so many videos broadcast over al-Jazeera, seated on a Persian rug with a rocket launcher or AK-47 to one side, denouncing the American infidels who eventually tracked him down and killed him (this may be wishful thinking, but if he is ever captured, and our government sees fit to have him humidermied, this would be educational for schoolchildren).
None of this is all that far-fetched. Since the Egyptians mummified their dead for their journeys into the afterlife, human beings have been trying their hand at preserving the dead. There are references in the New Testament to the intended mummification of Christ's body, and, since that time, the Roman Catholic Church has used the mummified remains of saints to inspire the faithful.
Modern embalming actually began during the Civil War in order to preserve bodies on their trip from the battlefields back home to loved ones. Since then, it has become common practice to embalm bodies so as to chemically suspend the decomposition of human tissue, and thus allow for public or private viewings.
World leaders such as Eva Perón, V.I. Lenin, Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh have been embalmed and put on indefinite display. Indeed, Lenin remains on display, despite the desire of many Russians to bury his corpse along with the corpse of communism. And in the early 1900s, carnivals would take the mummified remains of outlaws like bank robber Elmer McCurdy with them as they toured through the country. Just this past July, the much-written-about Body Worlds exhibition arrived at the California Science Center in Los Angeles (www.californiasciencecenter.org), where it displayed more than 200 real human specimens that have been preserved through a process called "plastination" (which replaces body fluids and fat with reactive polymers). The show has toured both Europe and Asia, and will remain in L.A. through January 23, 2005.
Private attempts at body preservation for extended use or viewing are by no means confined to Preserve A Life. Aside from ALCOR in Scottsdale, there's Summum (www.summum.us), which offers mummification of both pets and humans according to the religious and scientific precepts of the ancient Egyptians. Corpses of animals or humans are sealed in weighty sarcophagi and can be kept at home or in Summum's pyramid headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. As Summum states on its Web site, "Because of the beauty of the Mummiform and the sacredness of the body it holds, you may want it to be enshrined in a mausoleum sanctuary or placed inside a family sanctuary room where it may be viewed behind glass."
Also in L.A., Carl Crew, owner of the infamous North Hollywood nightclub and sideshow museum California Institute of Abnormal Arts (www.ciabnormalarts.com), currently has in his safekeeping the mummified remains of circus clown Achile Chatouilleu (1866-1912) preserved under glass, still wearing his clown outfit as well as emblems of his Masonic faith. Crew obtained the body, embalmed as it is with deadly arsenic, from a group of Gypsies living in northern California. Apparently it was Chatouilleu's wish to be permanently on display in his clown makeup. The corpse is part of an exhibition that includes the mummified arm of French nobleman Claude de Lorrainne, as well as other curiosities. Crew has had Chatouilleu's remains for several years now, and it's safe to say that thousands of people have seen the circus comedian's lifeless body.
Himself a former mortician's assistant, Crew has contacted Cunningham in the hopes of owning Preserve A Life's first franchise.
"Californians and Angelenos especially will love the whole Preserve A Life concept," he says. "Especially when we add improvements such as animatronics and push-button voice recordings so that you can hear your loved one talk. So I'm more interested in the humidermy part of it for the time being. Freeze-drying, as I understand it, would not allow for the kind of mechanized movement we want to include."
Crew points out that so many people in the Hollywood community see themselves as immortal already. "This would be the logical next step," he says.
Of course, despite the recent interest of entrepreneurs like Crew in preserving humans in the home and marketplace, freeze-drying and taxidermying pets has been going on for years, witnessed by the work of Anthony Eddy's Wildlife Studio in Slater, Missouri (www.pet-animalpreservation.com), which boasts that it offers "the comforting alternative to pet cremation or burial." But there has been at least one documented case nationally of the freeze-drying postmortem of a human body, and it happened in the Valley. As reported by the Associated Press in 1999 and recounted in Christine Quigley's comprehensive treatment of the subject in her tome Modern Mummies: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century (McFarland & Co., 1998), 80-year-old Lambert Hultz was freeze-dried by Fountain Hills taxidermist Harold Pavett, after Hultz's death 10 years ago on October 28, 1994. According to the AP, Pavett showed photos of Hultz's body two years after his demise, and Hultz's corpse still looked very well preserved. New Times was unable to reach Pavett for comment.
When asked about the Hultz freeze-drying, Nancy Keil, manager of the Messinger Indian School Mortuary in Scottsdale, confirmed, "We do have a person in our mausoleum who has been freeze-dried, just like a piece of fruit." She also related that the body was taken out for a viewing a year or two after interment and that "he looked like he did when he was alive." Interestingly, Keil told of having to retrieve a woman's body from ALCOR, which has to be embalmed and then shipped to California. The remains had been kept in one of ALCOR's big steel containers (in liquid nitrogen, presumably). "Her skin was the same color as in life."
Cunningham laughs every time ALCOR's name comes up.
"Can you put Humpty Dumpty back together again? Does anybody really believe that they will ever be revived by medical science? Well, I guess some do," he says. "What we offer is something more unique, and beneficial to the ones who are really affected by a loved one's death -- the people left behind. The dead person doesn't care. He's dead. She's dead. Preserve A Life is the future of mortuary science."
Asked if the rumors are true that PAL and ALCOR might one day work together, since the goals of the firms are entirely different, Cunningham says, "Well, at first ALCOR treated us like we were a bunch of quacks, and that hurt. Crittenden and I have felt the same way about them, but without the name-calling. But, lately, they have been more accepting of us. After all, the Braswells were referred to us by them, and that was a first. There are no current plans for a joint venture, but never say never."
Then, flashing that infectious super-salesman grin, he adds, "Say forever instead!"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.